This is part two in Dave Zuchowski’s two-part series on his four days in Portugal. See part one here.
Lisbon, Porto and perhaps Fatima are well-known places that come to mind when you hear Portugal. But the Algarve? It’s a bit vaguer—even though it happens to be Portugal’s most popular tourist destination.
With less than half a million permanent residents, the Algarve’s population swells three-fold during the peak summer season. Attracted largely by its unique and plentiful beaches, stellar golf courses, cuisine, climate, and affordability, more than seven million vacationers visit annually.
To familiarize myself before my upcoming visit, I went to YouTube for a peek of what to expect. The travel videos I found there didn’t excite me about my upcoming trip, but, unlike other promotional visuals, the actual mise en scene experience proved better than the videos and far exceeded my expectations. For one, the weather is perfect with sunny skies, low humidity and comfortable temperatures. Then there was the air—clean and pure and with aromatic properties only an experienced wine connoisseur could appreciate. It all combined to produce a marvelous atmospheric terroir.
Even though Algarve is derived from the Arabic word for “west,” the region lies in the extreme southern-most area of Portugal and buffers the Atlantic coastline for 125 miles east from the Spanish border to Cape St. Vincent in the west. Following a short, late-night flight from Lisbon, I arrived in Faro, the capital located roughly in the center of the Algarve, around midnight, and checked into the stunning Anantara Villamoura Algarve Resort, a 30-minute drive from the airport.
Up early the next morning, I headed to the cape, named for the martyred St. Vincent who was buried there until King Alphono Henriques exhumed the body and moved it to Lisbon. Back in the day, seafarers believed what was really the southwestern most point of continental Europe was “the end of the Earth.” Today, a solitary lighthouse overlooks one of the world’s busiest shipping routes from a high promontory. Due to the large number of tourists who visit, hucksters abound selling a wide variety of souvenirs. One even cleverly advertises “the last hot dog before America.”
In the 15th century, Henry the Navigator established a maritime school near the cape in Sagres, which taught navigation to students that included Columbus, Magellan and da Gama. Unfortunately only a few remains of the school—which was damaged by the earthquake of 1755—exist to this day.
Ponta da Piedade
Near the town of Lagos, Ponta da Piedade is one of Portugal’s most famous tourist attractions, famous for its yellow, cliff-like, craggy rock formations that rise to 67 feet above the sea floor. Something worth trying is hiking down the steep set of stairs to a small cove, where motorboats line up to take tourists on a watery excursion to gawk at the hidden grottos, sea-battered columns and rocky cliffs, many of which have interesting formations and colors striations.
At places along the tops of the cliffs, fishermen braver than me perilously cast their lines over in the hope of landing a catch.
Due to its significance as the port from which the Portuguese historically made their way further and further down the African coast, Lagos was home to Europe’s first slave market, which operated in the still extant town square. (It’s no coincidence that Nigeria’s capital is also called Lagos, if you get the connection). During a leisurely walking tour of the waterfront, I got to stroll through the square but missed most of the old town with its winding cobblestone streets and historic architecture.
A Relais & Châteaux lunch
Because of its proximity to the ocean, a lot of the Algarve’s cuisine is seafood-centric. With its Mediterranean climate, the region produces the expected products: olive oil, figs, citrus fruits, almonds, and honey, all of which are frequently incorporated into the regional cuisine.
Everywhere you go in the Algarve, you’ll encounter national dishes like caldeirada (fish stew akin to bouillabaisse), not to be confused with cataplana, a serving bowl shaped like a clam used to serve Portuguese seafood dishes. Another ubiquitous delectable are the custard tarts, found even on hotel breakfast buffets. Instead of the usual chocolate tidbit placed on your pillow at night, the staff at the Anantara Villamoura Algarve Resort leaves one tableside next to your bed as a nighttime snack.
In the town of Portimao, the Hotel Bela Vista & Spa certainly lives up to its name. This white, castle-like mansion built in the late 1800s is perched on the cliffs of Praia da Rocha and a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux. The latter organization was founded in 1954 in France and has about 500 members worldwide that are distinguished for their record of excellence of both their hotel and restaurant.
Lunch on Bela Vista’s terrace overlooking the beach was unforgettable. Chef Joao Oliviera strives to “respect the authentic flavor and freshness of each ingredient.” Those who like to dip their bread in olive oil will revel in the restaurant’s practice of offering a choice of three different oils. With much panache, our sommelier briefly explained tableside the features of each wine he paired with our multi-course repast that started with an Algarvian scarlet prawn with cuttlefish slices, “Ria Formosa,” oysters, cucumber, and gazpacho. Round two consisted of John Dory with white asparagus, soft roes and bread panada. Course three was a crisp belly of a Bairrada piglet with creamy egg, mushrooms, spinach, and Sao Jorge cheese. A “pre-dessert” of Algarvian citrus fruits was followed by an incredible plate of various textured chocolates.
Everyone in my dining party was in accord that Bela Vista merits a forthcoming Michelin star. Raters, are you listening?
Port has long been recognized worldwide as a delectable fortified wine from the north of the country, but the quality of other Portuguese wines—reds, whites, roses and sparklers—has been greatly improving in recent years. With a large variety of native varietals unheard of elsewhere, wine-tasting in Portugal can be an exciting adventure. New estates keep popping up in the Algarve, and those in the know say it’s a region to watch.
During my Algarve stay I managed to visit one winery: the Quinta Dos Vales Wine Estate. Run by two German expatriates, the winery grounds are strewn with sculpture created by owner Karl Heinz Stock, who also shows his artwork in the tasting room. Using a mix of traditional and modern techniques, the winery makes mainly wines from Portuguese and French varietals. I particularly enjoyed the Grace Vineyard Viognier and Grace Vineyard Red, very reasonably priced at under €13.
The Anantara’s wine guru played an important role at dinner at in-house Emo, a wine-oriented restaurant with more than 350 available selections. He carefully matched a Portuguese wine that complimented the chef’s local culinary offerings, creatively updated and enhanced by discoveries from Portugal’s spice trading days.
During our dinner conversation, we hit on the subject of must-try, bucket-list ports. Wine aficionado Joao Jesus—Algarve area director of sales and marketing for Minor Hotels—came up with these suggestions: 1866 Quinta do Vallado Adelaide Tributa and Graham’s Ne Oublie. Google them for a look at some innovative websites and shocking prices.
Before 1966, golf was hardly a sport to consider in the Algarve. Today, the region can boast of 42 eighteen- or nine-hole courses that can be played year round. More than half are on the coast, and most are designed by renowned international architects. Five Algarve golf courses have been named among the top 100 in continental Europe, and the D. Pedro Victoria Golf Course, designed by Arnold Palmer and near the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, has hosted the Portuguese Masters since 2007 and the World Cup Championship in 2005.
Note: The Victoria Course is hosting the Portuguese Masters, the only European Tour event played in Portugal, from September 21 to 24 of 2017.
The Anantara offers seven-night golf packages and also makes available to guests “experience gurus” for golf, wine and adventures that include hot air ballooning and nature excursions.
The Algarvian countryside
In retrospect, one of the highlights of my Algarve visit was a Jeep safari that took me into the hinterland past orange, carob and olive groves; over shallow streams and rural, off-track roads; and through rustic villages with stops for lunch and a tasting of a locally made Medronho liqueur on a family farm. And what a lunch! Included in the tour but assessed at $7 for the locals and those not on the tour, the hearty repast was served family-style and included wonderful local bread, butter, honey, soup, olives, Portuguese sausage, cheese, pommes frites, and sliced pork. Oh, and complimentary local wine.
I’d seen dolphins before at other destinations, so I was rather nonchalant when I boarded a Dream Wave excursion boat in Albufeira with others hoping to catch sight of the intelligent mammals that make the sea their home. The boat sped quite a way out to sea before someone spotted a “herd.” As the boat slowed down for a look, even I was excited to see the creatures, two and three at a time, break the water no more than five feet from the boat.
These antics lasted a good ten minutes, and then the crew radioed other excursion boats in our area so that others could share the experience. Then we were off on the second (and equally poignant) adventure: an up-close look at the intriguing cliffs that help make the Algarve such a popular destination.
Centuries of waves battering the coastal cliffs have etched out interesting coves, grottos and caves, some with exits as well as entrances, that lead to secluded beaches approachable only by boat. The ahh experiences are just as plentiful as the photo ops, many available only from the vantage point of the skiffs.
A Michelin star dinner
An inveterate foodie, I can think of fewer ways to bid a fond adieu to a memorable destination than by enjoying a really great meal. With six of Portugal’s 21 Michelin one- and two-star restaurants, the Algarve gives you plenty of opportunities to have one.
To cap off our trip in regal style, we headed to Restaurante Bon Bon in Carvoeiro, where, over the course of four hours, we sat outside, watched as the sunset morphed into twilight and then nightfall, and savored a procession of at least a dozen dishes, each artfully created and beautifully presented by youthful chef Rui Silvestre and his staff.
It would be difficult to pick a favorite from a menu that included oysters, ox tongue, veal, cockles, Algarve’s famous scarlet prawns, Alentejana pork, Atlantic lobster with bio egg yolk, and imperial caviar. Seafood dishes included turbot and red mullet done with exciting ingredients put together with culinary finesse. The carnivores in my party enjoyed the duck breast with beetroot and orange as well as the beef entrecote with celeriac.
A tribute to vegetarian fare came in the form of a dish of white asparagus with Sao Jorge cheese followed by a plate of citrus from Lugar do Olhar Feliz. Because of the sheer number of the selections, portions are understandably diminutive and meant for savoring. Of course, each had an accompanying wine matched for compatibility. As a finale, pastry chef Joana Goncalves created a masterpiece of chocolate treats that underscored just one of the reasons why Bon Bon was awarded an impressive Michelin one-star rating.
More, from TAP
As noted in last week’s story: Five Portuguese Michelin star chefs are working with TAP’s cuisine consultant, Vitor Sobral, to create in-flight meals that promote the best of Portuguese cuisine. Starting in September, TAP passengers will be able to enjoy an onboard meal that’s part of the airline’s “Taste of the Stars” program.
Also, travelers on TAP are able to include a stopover of up to three days in Lisbon and Porto at no extra charge when booking flights from the US and Canada to the Azores, Madeira or the Algarve. The stopover program ensures exclusive prices at hotels, a free bottle of Portuguese wine in restaurants and free experiences such as tuk tuk rides, visits to museums, dolphin watching on the River Sado, food tastings, and more. For more information, go to flytap.com.
For more information on the Algarve, go to visitalgarve.pt. All photos credited to Bill Rockwell.